I have always been a fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants kind of writer. I usually love not knowing where I’m going when I write--I love the process of discovery, of surprise, of letting the characters tell me where they want to go. My favorite quote about novel writing has always been EL Doctorow’s (which I may be paraphrasing a bit): “Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can only see as far ahead as your own headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” That dark road is so full of mystery and possibility--it’s been my favorite place to travel.
This NaNo, however, I am doing things a bit differently. I am using an outline.
Now, I have nothing against outlines, per se. I know and admire many writers who swear by them. I just never imagined I might be one of them some day.
Here is where I admit that I am not a NaNo purist this time around. I am actually using this month to flesh out a project I started a while back, a YA novel titled Seed Bombs that is making the rounds of publishers, in proposal form, as we speak. I have been carrying the idea for this book--a dystopian tale about kids who become guerrilla gardeners--inside of me for a few years, but had only gotten around to writing a couple of sample chapters (which I’m not including in my NaNo word count--I started at zero on November 1.) My agent suggested that if I pulled together a synopsis and an outline, we could try to sell the book before I actually wrote it. It was scary for me to commit to an outline--I worried that if I knew where the story was going, I wouldn’t want to actually write it, or the writing would be devoid of any real creative juice. But I liked the idea of getting a contract, getting a deadline, something that would force me to write (because, as I mentioned in my last blog, the chaos of the last couple of years had really impacted my ability to focus on long form projects). The process of writing the outline fortunately turned out to be a lot of fun, filled with its own sort of discovery and surprise--still, I didn’t jump head first the novel after I wrote the outline; I put myself into waiting mode.
The proposal has been out for a couple of months now--we haven't heard back from any editors yet. In the meanwhile, a super cool ghostwriting gig that I had been up for didn’t come through, and I realized that between that potential job and the proposal, I had essentially been waiting around for someone to tell me what to write. I think it was the main reason I had been excited about the ghost writing job--I was hoping that writing someone else’s story would jump start my own writing, help ease me back into my own work. It became clear, though, that no one was going to do that for me--I was going to have to do it, myself. And I realized that I had given myself my own jump start by writing an outline.
Less than two weeks into NaNoWriMo, I am not surprised that I have already veered from this outline--a brand new character showed up on the page demanding attention, and I have written scenes that I couldn’t have anticipated until they flew out of my fingers--but having the outline has proven to be a source of comfort. If I am not sure what to write, I can look at my list of scenes and see which one sparks something in me. For all my love of driving blindly into the night, I am realizing how helpful it can be to have a road map, a sense of the bigger picture. Life itself has been so full of uncertainty, lately--bringing a bit of structure to the writing process has offered a welcome counterpoint to that. There is still lots of space to lose control, to surrender to the wild river of words, within that structure, but it gives me something to hold onto, something to keep me from drowning.
We are our own dark roads--we never truly know what lies in store in our lives, or even what is most deeply within us. If we get too precious about our process, if we cling too tightly to our idea of who we are as writers--saying we’d never use an outline, only use an outline, etc.--we miss out on the growth that comes through change. So I highly encourage you this November (and beyond) to shake yourself up, try something new--write at a different time of day, write something you never imagined you were capable of attempting. Take yourself to places inside yourself that you had resisted as a writer. I’d love to hear about your own adventures into uncharted (or freshly charted!) territory.